Fear of leaks contributed to £6.6m dispute at Oxford college, review finds

Charity

Lack of engagement from trustees and a fear of leaks contributed to the £6.6m scandal that engulfed Christ Church College in Oxford, an independent review has found.

The review found that some academics on Christ Church’s governing board, who automatically also become trustees of the charity, lacked “the appropriate basic skills” required for the role.

The analysis, conducted by Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative MP and attorney general, was commissioned by Christ Church after criticism of its handling of a long-running dispute with Martyn Percy, the college’s former dean.

The Charity Commission issued Christ Church with a formal warning last year, saying that trustees “failed to manage the charity’s resources responsibly” after it spent £6.6m on a four-year legal battle that eventually saw Percy leave the college.

Grieve’s review, published yesterday, found that governance systems at Christ Church, where there are 65 trustees, “need significant improvement”.

His review also says “fear of leaks” meant some trustees restricted access to information relevant to the dispute, freezing out other board members from the details they needed to make decisions.

The review says: “During the course of my conversations with governing board members, it was made clear to me that a number of them are concerned at having the responsibility of being trustees, a role that they do not feel well equipped to undertake.

“They see their career and vocational choice as being one of academic teaching and/or research and some do not feel they have the necessary time to give to the task.  

“Trusteeship simply comes automatically with the academic appointment and there is no formalised induction and training on that appointment.” 

Some trustees told Grieve that charity governance was work “for which they feel unqualified”.

Board members also expressed concerns that they had been implicated by the Charity Commission warning “when it was felt that, in practice, they as individuals were able to play only a limited role in decisions, including the decisions criticised by the commission”. 

Grieve added: “I remain of the opinion that not all trustees at present have all the appropriate basic skills and knowledge or enough time to be effective in their role. This can then translate into acquiescence in the effective decision-making being made by others.”

The commission’s criticism of Christ Church focused on “the breakdown of collegiate decision-making under the pressure of events”, Grieve said, adding that collective decision-making became harder because some trustees did not want to make all relevant information available to the whole board.

The review says: “It’s an inescapable fact that fear of leaks led the governing board to restrict access to all the relevant information that trustees ought normally to have had made available to them in their role.

“This was done with legal advice and under exceptional pressures. But that in and of itself does not remove the problem it raises of how this allowed the 65 trustees to operate collectively, collegiately, in taking and monitoring important decisions affecting the finances and reputation of [the college].

“Many trustees had a lack of awareness of the actual amounts being spent. The figures would have been available to them by an examination of the accounts, but they were not being shared and discussed.”

One of the review’s recommendations is for Christ Church to move to a ‘governing council’ model, which will mean a smaller number of trustees taking responsibility for charity governance.

Christ Church said in a statement: “Now that the review is complete, the governing body will consider its conclusions and the changes necessary to ensure that Christ Church has an effective system of governance in place. 

“Implementing these reforms will require consultation with the university, the Church of England and the Charity Commission and the approval of the Privy Council and parliament.”

A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “We welcome the publication of Dominic Grieve KC’s findings and recommendations. 

“Our official warning to Christ Church was clear that an independent governance review was necessary and that the trustees should take all reasonable steps to implement its recommendations. 

“We expect this now to happen and will be monitoring Christ Church’s progress in this matter.”

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